Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pakistan: A Possible Future

(To help flood victims, please click here)

Ali thought to himself: should I report this? He had just walked by a conversation between two men regarding an effort to plan attacks against U.S. troops guarding the new massive embassy in Islamabad.

What do I do?

Ali and his family lived in the Northwest Frontier Province, in a small village about 100km away from the Swat valley. His family was quite poor. They lived in a small shack and he and his parents both worked in the fields. They basically kept to themselves and their family, and were apolitical in every sense of the word. They assumed that since they were all uneducated and illiterate, that they had no place in speaking out about their country.

Ali never cared for the small extremist population that caused trouble from time to time in his area. He was a devout Muslim, albeit a questioning one - how could God make his family suffer like this? However, he found nothing in their agenda that made much sense to him. They were very harsh with women, and Ali's love for his mother alone was enough to make him question their views. He also disagreed with their views on violence. However, he did see them as one of the only groups that was against the government. While he didn't care much for politics, he knew the leaders of the country were corrupt and largely useless, whatever party they belonged to.

He also was no fan of the U.S. government. A few years back, 10 of his family members were killed by a drone attack that supposedly was targeting militants. Like most drone strikes, most of the victims were civilians, and Ali grew to hate the U.S. after that incident, especially after watching their general support of the strategy on a TV interview with President Obama he watched at a friend's house.

There was also the issue of the flooding in 2010. Ali's family lost everything when the waters came and destroyed their small village. They were lucky to escape with their lives. Some of their friends in the village were not so lucky. They lived as refugees for many months, battling illness and cold, like millions of others made homeless. The Pakistani government didn't come and help them much. The Americans, and the international community in general most certainly didn't send much aid. In fact, the only groups that did help were the UN and a variety of Pakistani organizations, including some extremist groups. This didn't endear Ali to these people he considered madmen, but he did appreciate what little help he got. More than anything else, he, along with many others in his refugee camp, became increasingly bitter at the West. Wasn't Pakistan one of their key allies? Didn't they see the horrible suffering? Experts all over the globe said this flooding caused more damage than the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake...combined. Pakistanis were badly in need of food, immunizations, clothing, and shelter. They got none of it. After the flood waters receded, what little aid came from abroad stopped. Hundreds in Ali's camp died from cholera and an array of other water-borne diseases.

But yet, no increase in foreign aid. Ali didn't expect his own country to do much. Most Pakistanis didn't - they assumed (rightfully so in many cases) that their politicians were all crooks. Their President at the time of the flood, Asif Ali Zardari, was commonly called Mr. Ten Percent for his extraordinary talent for graft. Still, the shock at the lack of foreign support shocked Ali. He recalled the kind of attention the world paid to Indonesia after the tsunami. He remembered the outpouring of support for Haitians effected by the earthquake. He couldn't understand why the same kind of support did not come to Pakistan, either in the 2005 earthquake, nor the 2010 flood. And it made him very angry.

So, these thoughts raced through his mind as he headed back to his family's small shack. They finally moved out of the refugee camp a few months earlier, and he was overjoyed to no longer live in such a depressing place - considering the general squalor he lived in now, that was saying something. He knew he could report the incident to authorities very easily. He knew who the two men were, and he figured the local police could take care of matters very quickly. In fact, the station was on his walk home. But he couldn't shake a feeling that this was reasonable payback. Payback against America for the drone strike that killed his family members. Payback for the horrors he and millions of others had to live through from the floods when they didn't bother helping. They never even apologized or acknowledged their shortcomings - that might have been enough to satisfy the simple Ali. Every time he saw any US news on TV at his friends' places, the Americans only said horrible things about Pakistan. They never seemed to care about the people.

At the same time, Ali, like most Pakistanis, didn't support the extremists. They may not have liked America or the West, but these militants were not the answer, either. However, his anger was too high. Ali walked by the police station and headed home.

I'm not pulling the trigger, he thought. The hell with the Americans. They didn't help us. I'm not going to help them.

I see this kind of scenario as not unlikely in the coming few years as a result of the abysmal level of foreign support for the victims of the Pakistani flood. Every UN or humanitarian crisis leaders has pointed out the great need for foreign aid to help deal with the catastrophe, and the paltry amount given so far. Millions of children have not received any aid, a month after the tragedy began. There have been many stories discussing the problem, especially on Americans. The U.S. has been particularly stingy in helping Pakistan, which makes little sense considering our military technology in the region and the obvious "strategic" importance of Pakistan. The latter is a very cold-hearted statement, but even if one has no compassion for Pakistanis, it is simply in our self-interest to do more. Recently, there have been protests in the camps over the lack of foreign help as refugees are growing increasingly desperate for help.

Speaking about the American issue here, the problem isn't necessarily one of compassion. Americans tend to give a lot when tragedies strike around the globe. However, the press has not helped the matter for this particular case. For one, they have routinely de-politicized Pakistani strategies, particularly regarding the schizophrenic relationship between the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence wing) and the Taliban in Afghanistan, an alliance that I argued before made a lot of sense for Pakistan (irrespective of whether it was the right or good move). This made Pakistan more of a scapegoat for U.S. failures in Afghanistan than it should have been, and helped cement a very negative view of the country in the minds of many Americans. Again, it's not to say that Pakistan has done a lot to earn praise, but the media has simplified a more nuanced situation that makes the state look worse than it should be seen.

So, going into the tragedy, Pakistan wasn't exactly seen positively by Americans. During the tragedy, you would be hard pressed to know it was even going on, let alone the scope of the damage. You have to make a serious effort to watch news that actually covers the floods. Fact is, most Americans have no clue how severe the crisis is - they probably have been better informed about Paris Hilton's cocaine arrest. Seriously. Hell, even I know about that, which is a problem.

If the press doesn't talk about this tragedy, which, again, has been called more catastrophic than the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake COMBINED, Americans will not know. It's not like everyone listens to NPR or Democracy Now, where they would hear about this a lot more frequently. Fact is, if the media gave this story the level of coverage it deserved, I don't doubt Americans would be leading the charge in donations. Most of the rare coverage we actually do get is about the need to use this to combat militant Islam in Pakistan. This is not really accurate, of course, a point Imran Khan has pointed out very articulately on several occasions. The story of Ali I wrote up above is much more likely to occur. Khan is right...religious groups of all stripes have always provided aid in Pakistan, and most of them still do terribly at the polls. Our response to the tragedy should not be about stopping the influence of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. That might be a problem in our War-on-Terror fantasyland, but not in reality.

I've written many times about how terrible our media is, about the fact a comedian provides us better information than the collective stooges known as U.S. journalists, about how the press is structurally incapable of doing its job. It is failing, here, to provide Americans the nature and scope of the horrors being experienced by millions of Pakistanis. This is the real source of my anger. Americans should be helping Pakistan out more - it makes sense both morally (America is strong enough to help lead relief efforts for those ravaged by tragedies like, if we want Pakistan to be a real ally to us, we need to be a real friend to them in their time of need), and realpolitik-wise (even if one doesn't care about Pakistanis, it is obviously in America's self-interest to have them harbor less ill will towards us). And I bet Americans would be doing more, for any number of reasons...if they only knew what was going on. The hypothetical story of Ali shouldn't necessarily be what drives us to do things...but it will possibly be a consequence of our inaction, an inaction that I primarily hold the media responsible for.

Increased coverage of the tragedy would probably stir enough emotions to get a major increase in U.S. donations to the relief effort, a rare (and much-needed) instance of America extending an unconditional helping hand to Pakistan. It is too bad - even from pure self-interest, that kind of goodwill could come in handy down the line. Ali would certainly think so.

(Again, to help flood victims, please click here)


EddieW said...

Mr. Hornet,

Most appeals or outreaches for charity take one of two approaches: an appeal to one's sympathy, sense of morality, or religious sensibilities (the Sally Struthers or WWJD approach); or, as you mention here, a cold, hard-nosed realpolitik approach. Your story of Ali and the subsequent commentary blends elements of these two, but I submit takes a novel tack by including a need for the potential (recalcitrant) donors to consider an implicit threat. Now I understand that Ali and his story are hypothetical, simplified, and somewhat metaphorical. But I wonder if Ali's story reveals more of grim view of human nature, or perhaps the nature of Pakistani rural culture, than the possible consequences of humanitarian inaction. You've attributed to young Ali revenge as the primary motivation for his actions- moral!, as well as practical actions. His thought process is not "What do I owe the americans or the extremists?" Nor is it even "What have you (either party) done for me lately?" Rather, it's "Who deserves to be screwed the hardest?" Perhaps it's my level of American comfort that allows me to be somewhat naive and idealistic about human motivation, but I think the argument of "radicalization" is often an excuse more than an explanation for the activities of various terrorist and insurgent groups.

Moving on, Ali's story and your commentary can be reduced to "Person/group A should donate money or resources to person/group B. Otherwise, person/group B may someday take an adverse action / omission against person/group A." In many circumstances, this would be considered blackmail or extortion.
Given that, do you consider that a post and story such as this provides ammunition to conservative elements in America (and agree or disagree with them, love or hate them, like it or not, they are a continuing force in politics) who already believe that America is being "taken hostage" by threats of Islamic extremism? A common narrative from the right is the perception that America must/must not do X, Y, Z for fear of alienating the domestic or international Muslim community, which in turn would come back to harm America in the form of a terrorist act. I agree that if Americans had sufficient information about the catastrophe in Pakistan they would extend their generosity. However, I think they would deeply reconsider that generosity if they began to believe that they should be doing it not because it's right, but because "if you don't...," and that this would further fuel the rhetoric that America's greatest virtues are being exploited and co-opted by the use of fear and intimidation.

Thank you for your attention.

brown hornet said...

Eddie, I've edited the post slightly - I wrote it over a few days and realized it wasn't as clear as it should have been. Basically, the Ali story is about the consequences of inaction, but the real issue isn't the inaction, or why we should provide more relief so much as it is the media's role. We have both moral and strategic reasons to help, depending on how one feels about Pakistan, but Americans simply aren't informed about the severity of the tragedy, and that's the real issue here.